On Massively Multiplayer Propaganda…

08/08/2006

Simon drew my attention to a site called GIYUS.org the other day and it’s been in my thoughts ever since, and I’ve come to think of it as a really troubling kind of troll-supporting political malware, representing a technologically-empowered massively-distributed form of propoganda that I’ve never seen before. The site’s full name is Give Israel Your United Support and it works like this – individuals download a tool (the Megaphone Desktop Tool) which then alerts people to new articles and polls around the web that question Israel’s policies in the Middle East or ask for public opinion about them. The people concerned are then supposed to visit the site directly and respond to the poll or story or write an e-mail or whatever. They present an example on the page of one of the things that you could be alerted to:

The reason for this activity? Stated at the top of the page, “Today’s conflicts are won by public opinion. Now is the time to be active and voice Israel’s side to the world.” The software is designed to do two things – firstly to make it clear that there’s a large active pro-Israel population in the world, but also it’s there to make sure that the pro-Israel point of view is over-represented in the popular media. These are – let me repeat – the project’s stated goals.

Now I want to make it very clear here very early on that I’m not going to be making an anti-Israeli tract. It’s pretty much irrelevant to me who is using this particular tool – just that the tool exists. Or more specifically – since there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle – that tools like this exist and will continue to exist from now on as ways to attempt to deform the social discourse – whether that be for Democrats, Republicans, Israelis, Iraqis, Americans, Conservatives. This should be troubling to all of us, although I’m not sure that there’s very much we can do about it.

The short term consequence will be that all large scale public discussions and polls on the internet will become highly suspect – none of these groups are set up to deal with this kind of political spam yet. And that has to heavily affect the ability of organisations that deal with feedback from their audiences to do so fairly or to respond to a real constituency rather than just innumerable interest groups. This is, in effect, a way of harnessing hundreds of thousands of people to massage the public debate – the massively distributed conversation of the internet now has a form of PR – a form of propoganda – to match.

In substance, of course, there is little that has changed here – politicians and religious groups have always wanted to get out their vocal supporters, they’ve always wanted to move public opinion and help people spread the word. And they’ve used all kinds of techniques to do it – right back to the simple letter-writing campaign. And it’s far from the first time that new communicative, democratising technologies have been co-opted or bought ought by organisations who believe that they have to – or simply wish to – take every advantage they possibly can to win, even if it devalues the environment for all in the process. But it’s still something to be pointed towards with anxiety, to be acknowledged as it is recognised – if only so we can mourn the passing of a particular open spirit as the gamers and the trolls colonise the public spaces and set-up shop. We can expect to see this kind of campaigning tool being used in the next US elections I should think, and who knows – perhaps people I know, people like me, will feel they need to use them to see the change they want in the world, or to fight fire with fire.

Of course there is another way this could end. Because a tool that alerts people to points of debate around Israel isn’t only useful to Israelis, any more than a tool that alerts the Green lobby to big issues is of use only to environmental activists. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the same tools exposing the same data being co-opted by the direct opponents of the various groups that set them up. Each poll or news article may become nothing more than flashpoint fights between radicals of every persuasion in which the quieter, more average voices get completely drowned out. So there you have it – flashpoints of argument, massively multiplayer campaigning and propoganda techniques, the loss of the common voice and a scouring of the commons. So much for a democratising medium…